Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
The news recently (when it hasn’t been about impeachment) has shown us some provocative photography of enormous protest marches in Hong Kong and France, people rising up against a government they do not see as representing them. Here in the modern cradle of democracy, however, our masses sit in offices and apartments retweeting clever or angry posts about the right wing dystopia that our country is rapidly becoming and pretend that we are doing something about it. That’s why plays like The Tasters exist and why theatres like Rivendell produce them. This alternative reality dystopian play demands that we ask ourselves just what exactly we are willing to do to promote (or restore) the ideals with which we were brought up to the country we love.
The Tasters takes place in a dungeon-like room within a palace in a country in which the will of the people has long been co-opted by the desires of their four “great leaders” (a name undoubtedly chosen by playwright Meghan Brown to conjure thoughts of China and North Korea). But there is a rebellion going on in the nation, led by Elyse (Shariba Rivers) and bands of her pro-democracy followers. The nationwide media, under the control of the leaders, has convinced much of the public that these freedom-fighters are terrorists, making use of mistakes that the rebels have made (like the obliteration of an entire town in their zeal to fight the government’s forces) to help paint that picture. Still, there are enough rebel sympathizers that the great leaders live in constant fear of assassination.
Because the rebels recently managed to successfully use poison to kill one of them, the leaders have established a system of “tasters,” people who are either coerced or (in their own misplaced patriotism) volunteer to taste the meals prepared for the leaders, either to live and enjoy gourmet cuisine or to die in agony as their insides melt. At this moment, the three living leaders and a ruthless General (Eric Slater) are all together in his Northern fortress as they meet to determine who will become the new leader of the East.
The central character is one of the tasters, Bianca (Paula Ramirez), who, rescued by the general’s forces, was the only survivor of the attack that wiped out her town and has been his taster now, as well as his concubine, for a long time. Bianca does not feel that she is in any danger because she is carrying the General’s baby and he would never let her get hurt, so she has decided to enjoy the food (which is scarce out in the world) and do whatever he asks of her.
Because of the conclave of leaders, the General imports two more tasters. The first, Corinne (Daniella Pereira) is a True Believer in the leaders, willing to do anything at all for them in the name of duty. The other, to everyone’s surprise, is Elyse herself, who has been captured by the General’s forces and now must serve as a taster in order to protect the leaders from the poison that her own people deploy. (It is explained that the rebels use a unique and undetectable poison, so there is no scientific method by which it can be stopped.) The fifth cast member is Collin Quinn Rice, who plays the genial lieutenant who serves them the food three times each day, reveling in their opportunity to recite the details of each gourmet menu.
Though there are a couple of scenes that take place in the General’s quarters, director Devon de Mayo has the unenviable task of keeping the stage alive when three of its main players are stuck behind separate tables for most of the show and the only movement can come from Rice, as they arrive with the meals, or the General, as he gloats over his conquests of Bianca and Elyce. There is a certain amount of movement repetition and claustrophobia inherent in the script, but de Mayo and her actors are able to forge individual and interesting characters despite the limitations of a script that is a bit too simplistic, relying as it does on stereotypes more than fully realized characters and situations for much of the time: the self-satisfied bully, the feckless and servantile person working for him, the overwrought post-apocalyptic country, the walking propaganda poster that is Corinne, and the mysterious “Great Leaders” themselves.
Slater’s General overpowers every scene in which he appears, which is apropos of his position and conceited nature. Interested only in his own quest for more power and the three leaders who might give it to him, he enjoys his mistreatment of the tasters as well as the weak-willed lieutenant, who is terrified of him and wishes they could do more for the tasters, especially Bianca. But it is the relationship and interplay between Bianca and Elyce that form the backbone of this play. Bianca initially hates Elyce because of what happened to her parents and her town, and (along with the annoyingly verbose and hyper-nationalist Corinne) fully believes the government’s story that she and her followers are traitors. But when Bianca and Corinne are finally exposed to the full impact of the leaders upon their devastated country, they face the difficult emotional decision of whether they, in their imprisoned positions, can do anything about it.
The problem comes when it is time for that choice. Rivers’ Elyce dominates the scenes among the tasters with a reserved, totally focused performance, and theoretically it should be easy for Bianca to do what is necessary. But Ramirez’s character is such a ball of confusion that she doesn’t know which way to turn even after she finds herself believing Elyce’s version of things. Struggling to get past her antipathy for the rebel leader and reeling under the knowledge that the government is every bit as bad as she claims, Bianca faces the exact situation that led to so much inertia in the 2016 election: she feels that she is being asked to choose the lesser of two evils.
The script of The Tasters has flaws, but it is still a timely exploration of the role of the individual in a fascistic society. As our own nation veers more and more in the direction of autocracy and even impeaching the President results in what can justly be termed a kangaroo court, it can appear that nothing anyone can do can truly effect any positive change. But Brown’s play suggests that, ultimately, a lot does indeed depend on each of us. We can choose to be the victims of those who care more about their own security than the country they are supposed to be leading, or we can try to do something about it. And that “something” isn’t going to be found on a computer screen.
The Tasters is now playing at the Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave, Chicago, IL, until Feb 16. The show runs approximately ninety minutes; there are no intermissions. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.